In last week’s #TDR50 segment, we introduced New York’s fusion voting system as a unique process that gives third parties political clout in a system dominated by two major parties. But it wasn’t always this rare. Electoral fusion played a major role in 1800s politics and contributed to the success of many third party candidates.
Electoral fusion allows one candidate to be nominated by multiple political parties. This allows smaller parties to have an impact on the election and forces lawmakers to pay attention to the platforms of these parties. It also allows voters to support the platform of a party, such as the Working Families party in New York, without feeling like their vote will go to waste if they don’t cast it for a Democrat or Republican.
Electoral fusion was common throughout the 1800s and contributed to the rise of the Populist Party at the end of the century. Populists joined candidacies with both major political parties, depending on which candidates best served the needs of their supporters, especially small farmers.
The Republican Party started to grow wary of fusion voting after the Populist Party joined with the Democrats in the 1892 elections, and Republican dominated state legislatures began to ban the process. A Minnesota state senator even admitted that he was threatened by the rise of a third major party, saying, “We don’t propose to allow the Democrats to make allies of the Populists, Prohibitionists, or any other party, and get up combination tickets against us.”
Though Democrat-Populist candidate William Jennings Bryan came close to winning the Presidency, the Populist Party started to dwindle by the beginning of the 20th century, due to the bans on fusion voting and voting restrictions such as literacy tests. Though some third party candidates were able to drum up supporters, such as Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party, it was very hard to convince voters to vote for an independent candidate who would most likely lose to a candidate from one of the major parties.
The Supreme Court has even addressed fusion voting. In Timmons v. Twin Cities Area New Party (1997), it ruled that the Twin Cities Area New Party in Minnesota could not nominate someone who was already being nominated by another party. The Court argued that Minnesota’s anti-fusion laws did not go against people’s right of association, as the Twin Cities Area New Party could still endorse whoever they wanted to.
Today, there are eight states that allow their candidates to receive the nomination of more than one political party: Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Mississippi, New York, Oregon, South Carolina and Vermont.